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Gyroball ready for spring showcase…or not

Two-seam gyroball
Two-seam gyroball

TOKYO (TR) – Even though the middle of February has many still pondering such forms of procrastination as non-shoveled snow and blank tax forms, for pitchers and catchers it signals the opening of spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona. Veterans will get a head start in shaking the rust that increasingly accompanies age and new faces will begin making impressions — hopefully positive ones — with their clubs.

This week Boston Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan’s latest export to M.L.B., will be attracting more than the usual amount of cameras when he makes his first throws from a mound at Red Sox camp in Fort Myers. Not because of the twenty-six-year-old’s knee-buckling curve, his devastating change-up, nor even for the Red Sox hefty investment of $103.1 million dollars (which includes the $51.1 million dollar posting fee paid to his former club, the Seibu Lions), but due to his rumored “gyroball” — a pitch that is delivered toward the plate in a spiral similar to a football.

“Makyu no Shotai” (The Truth about the Supernatural Pitch) is a tome co-authored by the pitch’s creators, Japanese computer scientist Ryutaro Himeno and sports instructor Kazushi Tezuka. It details the mechanics of the delivery, which requires a pivot at the hips followed by a twirl of the ball off the tips of the fingers, and depicts the pitch’s subsequent gyrokaiten, or gyro rotation – whose bullet-like whirling motion is completely different from topspin (as applied to a curveball), backspin (fastball), or sidespin (slider) — with diagrams and manga cartoons.

Ever since Matsuzaka’s dominating performances in last year’s World Baseball Classic, articles postulating the pitch’s characteristics have sped around the Internet. But unlike other less tangible fables, say, the free lunch, this myth has been somewhat validated by a tech element: the pitch’s trajectory and spin have been modeled on a computer.

Tezuka, who is the president of the sports clinic company Beta Endophin, and Himeno began working together as a result of a series of sports seminars the pair attended in the late ’90s. Himeno at the time had been modeling the movements of the forkball, a pitch that drops suddenly once it crosses the plate, using a finite difference computer analysis. Then at the urging of Tezuka, who first observed the gyroball’s rotation while watching a group a students playing catch in 1995, he switched his studies to the gyroball.

Himeno is the director of the Advanced Center for Computing and Communication, whose office is a short train ride north of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture. On the building’s first floor he has set up a theater and projector hooked up to one of his computers. Like a computer game, a digital pitcher graphically dishes out pitches that follow the trajectory dictated by Himeno’s models. The gyroball is shown to be dropping straight down upon crossing the plate, in contradiction to the average Internet rumor that has the pitch severely breaking across laterally like a curveball jacked up on steroids. Himeno said that since the gyroball’s rotation is perpendicular to its direction of travel (not the case for the curveball, for example), gravity sends it falling. Himeno routinely gives presentations where he claims that Matsuzaka’s slider, which sinks dramatically, is really a gyroball delivered with the middle and fore fingers positioned across two seams of the baseball. “It’s simply physics,” he explained of the pitch’s behavior.

It may also all be for naught. In interviews Matsuzaka shows a general lack of knowledge of the pitch. Rather than gamesmanship, it is more likely he doesn’t know what everyone is talking about.

Tezuka says that Matsuzaka’s connection to the pitch is rooted in the 50-minute program “18-Year-Old Daisuke Matsuzaka: The Super Rookie’s Spirit and Technique” that aired on Japanese public broadcaster NHK during Matsuzaka’s rookie campaign in 1999. The special, which featured Tezuka discussing Matsuzaka’s release, showed bits of the hurler’s daily life and broke down his pitches, whereby the narrator claimed during a blurry slow-motion sequence that one sinking pitch had a gyro rotation. Over the course of the next year, Japanese Internet chat rooms like “Ni-Channeru” (Channel 2) posted links to photos from that program. Thus Matsuzaka’s gyroball was born.

Tezuka, however, maintains that he told NHK that true gyroballers only throw sidearm, something Matsuzaka does not do. Dropping down sidearm, like Yankees’ southpaw reliever Mike Myers, allows the ball to remain balanced in the fingers, Tezuka said recently from his cramped office just off a major expressway in Tokyo. “It’s too difficult to throw the gyro overhand,” he said. “But no matter what I said NHK wouldn’t listen.”

Himeno, who did not appear on the program but provided his research to the producers, said that he was the one who told NHK that Matsuzaka’s pitches achieve the gyro spin.

To summarize: one book, two theories, and a lot of confusion.

But given that Matsuzaka has never met Himeno nor Tezuka and videos of Matsuzaka allegedly throwing the gyroball on such Internet sites as YouTube show him clearly gripping the ball across four seams, as one might to throw a slider, it is safe to say that…

“It’s a sinking slider,” Tezuka said.

Derek Jeter, just to be safe, keep your eye on the ball.

Note: This article originally appeared in February 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.